Braille Monitor                                             October 2015

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Leadership through Law: Perspectives on Advancing Civil Rights for the Blind

by Maura Healey

Maura HealeyFrom the Editor: Maura Healey is the attorney general of Massachusetts. The National Federation of the Blind has partnered with her in a number of actions which have resulted in significant advancements in access. Her commitment to civil rights and her belief in serving the public is clear. Here are the remarks she made on Friday afternoon, July 10, 2015, following a presentation by Dr. Raymond Kurzweil:

Thank you so much, Mr. President. Good afternoon, everyone. It is great to be here. I'm just reminded, Ray—see I chickened out. I was a government major in college—go figure—I stayed away from all that science, but God bless Ray and all the folks out there who take the time to do that great and important work. That was fascinating.

Happy birthday, NFB! It's so great, and indulge me: I want to give a shout-out to our Massachusetts delegation back there: David, Amy, Mika, and I've got to give a shout-out to Maryland as well. You see, I was born in Bethesda; I spent the first two years of my life in Rockville. And how about that Guinness World Record? That is so impressive: give yourselves a hand! I'm going to tweet that on our site. We're going to blast that out all over Massachusetts, and let everybody know what you did.

I got down here last night late, but I know some of you had to get up really early in the morning to do that, to make that beautiful mosaic, and to make such a bold statement. Live the life you want; you better believe it. Good for all of you; it's just great.

As was mentioned, I worked in the attorney general's office long enough that I actually became the attorney general. I started life as a young lawyer at a big firm after I hung up my basketball shoes. If you were to see me--I'm about five-foot-four; you wouldn't see that one coming--but I was a feisty point guard in college and then ended up playing ball overseas for a few years. So I was always a little bit used to being underestimated most of my life, not being taken seriously on the court, not exactly fitting the profile, not exactly fitting people's expectations. But I, like many of you, came to use that to my advantage. I ultimately decided that basketball wasn't going to be the be-all and end-all for me. At some point my knees were going to give out. So I went to law school, and I went to law school because I wanted to be an advocate; I wanted to help people. I graduated from law school, got some terrific training at a big law firm in private practice, but then followed my heart, left that to join the attorney general's office eight years ago, and had a wild ride to the point where I loved it so much I actually quit that job two years ago to run for attorney general. People thought I was nuts because I wasn't a politician, hadn't run for anything before, but I believed passionately in the power and the possibility of the law and what it could do to change people's lives and make a difference. I'm going to come back to that, because I have to tell you that I would not be attorney general of Massachusetts were it not for the NFB: Were it not for the experience that all of you in this organization taught me about the law and about how you can use it to make a difference. I am just so honored to be here; I am so privileged to be here among all of you.

Flash forward—I won the race last November, and I got sworn in in January. So we're just a few months into the work, but the work of the attorney general's office in this area has been ongoing for many years.

In my time, I want you to know that I have come to know first-hand the value and the power of this organization. I have been wanting to come to Orlando for many years, not to Disney, but to this convention. I've got to tell you: I'm so happy to be here.

So the NFB is unique. You are a remarkable organization with a dedicated staff and incredible leadership. I want to commend President Riccobono and all of your team who put on this wonderful event. It's amazing with over 50,000 members, and chapters and affiliates in all fifty states. You are such a powerful voice for individuals: pushing expectations, breaking barriers, shifting the lens in such important ways—not only to see what is possible but also what is right—what is right and what it should be. Your mission is one that I admire, that I embrace, that I support: education, empowerment, teaching people the tools to live the life that they want. This is so, whether it's ensuring access to housing; employment; transportation; education; equal access in public spaces, both physical and digital; and equal access to quality healthcare.

Now I know that equal access doesn't just happen. It takes thoughtful policy-making, strong advocacy, and aggressive enforcement. But most of all it takes people like you: the members of NFB out there every day, living your lives, telling your stories, and teaching people along the way about what is possible and what is right. The NFB has done that time and time again, from dedicated legal representation to your legislative and regulatory advocacy across this country, to your investment in new technologies and research. The NFB has truly been and continues to be a leader in fighting for equality, for accessibility, and for what is right. [Applause]

But your work goes beyond that. It's about the community that you've built together—it is inspiring. With young and old, with programs, with training, with encouragement of Braille literacy, the NFB-NEWSLINE® talking newspaper and more: in so many ways you are so remarkable.

But enough about the NFB. Let me get back to me for a minute, okay? I'm going to tell you a little story. I'll tell you the story about how I came to know the NFB. In March of 2007 I quit my job in private practice, took a big pay cut, and became chief of the civil rights division in the attorney general's office in Massachusetts—a dream job for me. I was so excited to be there and so excited at the opportunity to use the law to advance civil rights. But I didn't know a whole heck of a lot. I had the passion and the commitment, but I had a lot of education in front of me. I also had a new boss, who had just gotten elected, and we were all sort of feeling one another out.

One day in my office I got a telephone call from a guy named Dan Goldstein; have you heard of him? [Applause] Well, one of my colleagues had given me a little bit of a warning about Dan—in the nicest of ways described him as tough, persistent, the smartest lawyer I'll ever meet, and a real advocate.

I took the call, of course, and I was blown away and at that point began my education—an education that has led me to today. Dan told me a little story about one of his clients, an organization called the NFB. He told me about some of the problems that the NFB was having with a little company called Apple. Now, I'd heard of Apple; I hadn't heard of the NFB. In no time at all, Dan was offering, in his indomitable way, to hop on a plane and bring to Boston a guy named Marc Maurer. I didn't know Marc Maurer, but boy did I come to know Marc Maurer.

A few weeks later Dan, Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, and the terrific folks from Brown, Goldstein, & Levy, accompanied by folks from NFB—let's give it up again for Dr. Maurer [Applause]—how about that? [Chanting of "Dr. Maurer"] Those are better than any cheers I ever heard on any basketball arena—that's pretty good.

So they came to town. They came to Boston, and they told the story about what it was that was happening with regard to Apple. Now I have to say this was a real education. JAWS—I thought Jaws was a movie about sharks; I had no idea what they were talking about. But, as they walked me and the team in the office through the issue, demonstrating the problem with the technology, I quickly realized how Apple products were leaving students and users behind, leaving them in the dust. In the wake of incredibly interesting emerging technology, there was going to be a whole category of people in this country who were going to be left behind. I understood fundamentally as a civil rights lawyer that that was wrong.

But the story continues, and my education continued. I got an invitation from Dr. Maurer to go to Baltimore. I visited the NFB, and I toured the NFB. I went to the Jernigan Institute. I had the privilege of attending the Jacobus tenBroek program—wonderful—and learned so much from those sessions. You know what I also learned? I learned that so much of the civil rights laws and civil rights stories and speeches from people like Dr. Martin Luther King—you know who inspired that? Jacobus tenBroek. That's where so much of that began. That's something that not enough people in America know. But that is the truth, and that is a rich part of the history of this organization.

At some point I figured we had accumulated enough information to be able to go forward, and I can't say enough to you about the lawyers that you have on your staff: Mehgan Sidhu and her folks—just amazing people, and also the folks—the advocates, the lawyers that you have at Brown, Goldstein & Levy. I think they all deserve a great round of applause [Applause] because this took some work. At first when we reached out to Apple, they didn't believe it was true; they didn't think that it was a problem, and they resisted. But the NFB persisted, and ultimately we were able to reach an agreement with Apple to ensure that iTunes and iTunes U would be accessible to blind and print-disabled consumers who depended on screen-reading software. That was groundbreaking, and I so appreciate all that NFB members did to move that forward. Because it took the NFB to show Apple the way.

I remember being in conference rooms with engineers, executives, and lobbyists from Apple who just didn't understand what the issue was. It took NFB members actually demonstrating the technology and the failures—and also the workarounds and the fixes to be able to get this done. It really was remarkable and a huge credit to this organization.

I also remember the first time Apple showed up in our office, and they brought us the very first talking iPod. That was pretty cool, too. Again, all inspired by the effort and the fight of this organization. [Applause]

In this rapidly changing world it is so important that technology not leave anyone behind, particularly when it comes to educational opportunities. I learned how important collaboration is, that it's so important that we work with companies and businesses to make sure that they are incorporating accessibility into their design of software and technology. Otherwise, how else do we fulfill the promises of equal opportunity that the laws require? What this collaboration with Apple also showed me was that we have good laws on the books which promise inclusion and equal opportunity—great words on the page, but they are not self-executing. They require aggressive and creative enforcement, and this is often best accomplished through partnership. At the attorney general's office we are willing and able to bring cases to vindicate these rights. Using our experience with the NFB, we proceeded to go after movie theater chains, look at what they were doing, and ultimately reach agreements with the nation's three largest movie chains to provide more accessibility to persons who are visually impaired, blind, and deaf. [Applause] Because everybody should be able to go to the movies with their friends, their spouses, their loved ones.

In 2013 it was mentioned that we worked with the NFB to reach an agreement with Monster.com, the popular job website. This was important because it is about websites needing to be accessible, but it's also about jobs. I know how serious a problem it is when it comes to underemployment and unemployment in your community, and it's why we need to do things like take on Monster.com.

In addition to agreeing to change the website, I know we worked with NFB to make sure that Monster paid $100,000 to fund the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind's job internship program and to sponsor the NFB's annual convention a few years ago. This case illustrated to Monster and to the business community as a whole that failing to consider accessibility on the front end has significant costs. Every time we bring a case or Dan Goldstein threatens to bring a case, the learning curve for the defendant is one of the biggest challenges. But this is where the NFB comes in—in getting people up to speed. We want every business, every landlord, every municipality to think about accessibility and access up front, on the front end, when making their daily decisions. [Applause] Daily decisions, daily activities: this is about people being able to live their lives the way that they want and exercising what everybody would want to exercise in the regular course of the day. You know, that's what the Cardtronics case was all about. Again, so important: the work that this organization did. Our office was so proud to be able to partner with you on that. The fact of the matter is that so many sighted people take for granted the ability to conveniently withdraw money from ATMs. It was just wrong that for so long those who are blind or visually impaired were shut out from that. I know that we were pleased when the court approved the settlement agreement, when Cardtronics failed to comply that the court then ordered them to comply, and I know how great it was for you all to get that check earlier this week—that's terrific, $1.5 million, terrific!

Look, it would be difficult to overstate for me the important role that disability rights work has played in my career and in shaping the perspective that I now bring to bear as an attorney general. From the NFB I learned about the harm of judgements; the harms of stereotypes; the harm that is incurred when people set expectations that are unfounded, that are misplaced, that are too low. It's why in my office in a few weeks’ time we're going to do something that hasn't been done before and institute office-wide unconscious-and implicit-bias training. I want people who work for me in this public agency to understand unconscious bias, understand something about stereotypes and judgements, and I'm hoping that every agency and everybody in law enforcement and every business in Massachusetts also undergo that same training. From my good friend David Ticchi I learned the importance of educating employees and staff. David, you know, on the side works with one of the leading restaurant chains, Legal Sea Foods, in Massachusetts and teaches all of their new servers and employees about how to best interact and sort of the how-tos of engaging with customers who are blind or visually impaired. Really really important work—something we're also going to do in our office. Because this is about breaking barriers and breaking down stereotypes. It's also important as an office that we listen, that we listen to the stories like we did when we put the cases together with NFB.

We field hundreds of disability rights complaints every year from people across Massachusetts. Often after educating both parties, we've been able to mediate quick and effective resolutions, whether it's handicap parking spaces, staircase railings, restroom grab bars—we help with service animals, with changes to employer policies, and with unlawful terminations. But we wouldn't be able to do this if people didn't come forward and be willing to tell their stories. I encourage you to do that: face injustices head-on, report them to your authorities, and certainly if you're in Massachusetts (though I'll take complaints from anywhere), let your attorney general's office know. Because as attorney general, I am committed to reaching out to other attorney generals across this country. So you may be in another state, but know that I'd be the first to pick up the phone and try to work with an attorney general from another state to get at discrimination and to make things right.

I also know that when education and mediation attempts fail, the power of the law is important. I understand that fundamentally, and I want you to know that that was made clear to me and taught to me by the work that I was able to do with NFB. As Jacobus tenBroek said, "The right to live in the world consists in part of the right to live out of it. The blind, the deaf, the lame, and the otherwise physically disabled have the same right to privacy that others do; not only the right to rent a home or an apartment, public or private housing, but the right to live in it; the right to determine their living arrangement, the conduct of their lives; the right to select their mates, raise their families, and receive due protection in the safe and secure exercise of these rights." Nobody could say it any better, and that's what we strive to put into practice today, day in and day out.

Later this month we're going to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a tremendous law. But make no mistake about it: as we celebrate the anniversary of this landmark civil rights law, it's important not only to reflect on what has happened, but more important that we look ahead at where we still need to go. It's a brilliant law. It provides a brilliant framework for eradicating injustice and discrimination and ensuring equal access to the civic, social, and economic elements of our society. But we need to do more work; more work is ahead. When you look at all the websites that are out there that are still inaccessible, you know we have work to do. When we look at the lack of affordable and accessible housing, you know we have more work to do. When you look at the rates of unemployment and underemployment in this community, we have more work to do. When you look at the low rates of Braille literacy, we know we have more work to do, and that is something that I am committed to talking publicly about in Massachusetts. I want every child to have access to learning Braille at an early age. When we look at what is happening to parents when it comes to parental rights and child custody, we know we have more work to do. And we know we have more work to do when it comes to accessing healthcare. Doctors and hospitals must have the equipment they need to provide appropriate care to all patients, and all patients need to be able to easily access healthcare. This is something that is so important: no person with a disability should ever have to leave his or her dignity at the door or rely on the help of a stranger in order to receive or access necessary medical treatment or care.

So we know we have more work to do. In the area of education, with the infusion of technology into every classroom, we need to make sure that all of the technology that is available is accessible to all students. We cannot continue to allow technology to create a divide among students, and thanks to Ray Kurzweil and others, we know we won't.

I'm committed to advancing an aggressive agenda within my office and beyond on these matters. This is about civil rights. This is about human rights. And all of us benefit when those rights are advanced. Whether we're fighting about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability, at the end of the day it is the same.

This morning I woke up and watched and listened to the story that was unfolding in South Carolina with the removal of the Confederate flag. [Applause] I mention that because that's what we're talking about; we're talking about persistent discrimination that exists across so many lines in our country: race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, and the like. But I'm inspired when I see something that I think many of us thought was not possible, and that should give us hope and continued inspiration and also should reaffirm that we are all in this together.

Again, I want to thank you for having me here today. Congratulations to the NFB on seventy-five years. Keep up all of the great work that you do. Live the life you want, and let your own imagination be your only limitation.

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